by Patrick Appel
I work for a local government in Maryland. We also have regular inspections of rental properties -- mostly when the landlord is applying to renew his/her license, but at other times as well. These inspections are never used to investigate illegal activities on the part of the renters, as your scary post seems to imply. Rather, the inspections are almost always for the sake of the renters -- that is, to ensure landlords are properly maintaining their homes to the standards of our rental housing code (it should be noted, there are no such standards for owner-occupied homes). Renters in our county can demand inspections at any time, and if any code violations are found, the landlord must address by a certain deadline or face daily, compounding fines.
Maybe this is too heavy-handed (tyrannical?) towards landlords. Although some landlords are great, there are many that will take advantage of renters, especially those families with few other housing options. Indeed, while in college several years back, I moved into a rental house with a deck that was in danger of collapsing, stairs were rotting, a basement that leaked with even the most minor rain shower, and a massive infestation of fleas. I fought the landlord for a month over these issues, until one day when I came home to find a pamphlet on my door from a rental inspector asking if I was having any problems with the house. I called the number and scheduled an inspection the next day. A few days after that, contractors started showing up at my house and I got a refund for my first month's rent.
Rental safety inspections serve a legitimate public interest, and as a renter I am grateful for them. They help ensure that landlords maintain their properties. Mandatory annual inspections in my municipality were on the books, but not conducted very frequently, until two pretty outrageous violations a few years back. In one case, raw sewage was leaking into a woman's apartment from upstairs, and her landlord (a slumlord) was unresponsive in addressing the issue. In another, tenants had installed an electric space heater within the wooden kitchen cabinets. Both situations resulted in building fires (due to an electrical short in the case of the sewage leak). Thankfully, nobody died, but the resulting public outcry led code enforcement officials to reinstate the practice of conducting the inspections annually.
I don't want strangers poking into my business any more than the next guy, but letting inspectors visit my apartment once a year to make sure the place has a working smoke detector, a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and secondary means of escape if on an upper floor is a small price to pay for the community's peace of mind that local rental properties are safe and livable.
Condominium owners are also subject to the same requirements as renters as far as regular safety inspections (Usually a fire inspector. They look at smoke detectors, alarms, fire sprinklers, etc.). I think it is less about taking Fourth Amendment rights away from the "rental class" as it is about an interest in public safety in conditions where people are living in close proximity, and at risk of their downstairs neighbor's meth lab exploding at any time.
I am baffled why your reader would assume housing inspectors are looking for some illegal activity on the part of the renters. Housing inspectors are not police and their authority is limited to issues related to the condition of the property. Besides, renters are given advance notice before inspectors can enter a unit (same as any time a landlord wants to enter a property in a non-emergency situation). Having said that, conducting illegal activities probably violates the lease, so you'd think a prudent renter would (say) remove the pot plants from the living room on the day an inspection is scheduled.
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